Electronics is out of the ghetto. Interview with Elżbieta Sikora, artistic director of the Musica Electronica Nova festival


The audience needs to understand that the devil is not as black as he is painted. The first contact with contemporary music could have been too painful for some people. However, today that kind of music has such a long history that it should have been assimilated a long time ago – explained Elżbieta Sikora, the new director of the Musica Electronica Nova festival. The festival with the programme she created starts on Friday, May 13th and ill end on May 21st.

Magdalena Talik: You have been chosen as the new artistic director of the Musica Electronica Nova festival. So far, each edition of this event has been run by another director, but it has not affected the quality of the festival. Are these changes advantageous?

Elżbieta Sikora: Yes, definitely. Every one of us contributes his or her vision of a festival, everything he or she knows in a given field and wants to show to a broader audience. With that in mind, it seems obvious that the festival is different each time. It so happens that I have been offered to run 2013 MEN as well, so there will be some sort of continuity, given the fact that during the preparation for this year’s edition we have already gathered many new ideas. I did not take part in the previous festivals, apart from the last one. I read about them in the press and the Internet. I have been observing the changes and I have continued with some concepts when working with the programme committee , which also decides on the character of next editions of MEN.

What do you think about the Wroclaw festival? Can you compare it to other similar festivals held around the globe?

Festivals are a result of some sort of compromise. We always dream of preparing a perfect festival, which would be spectacular and unique, but everything depends on the availability of the ensembles, funds and time we have for preparation. In this year’s edition of Musica Electronica Nova there is a focus on French music.

It is not such a coincidence, since you have been living in France for many years.

I know this environment very well. I was quite active in its initiatives; I composed both in IRCAM and GRM as well as in other experimental studios. In France electronic music is an animate matter and it evolves rapidly. Although not many world-class festivals are organized there, there are many regional events, and quite recently electronics was introduced at the prestigious French radio festival, Présences, so there is also Présences électronique. Electronics is out of the ghetto and can be found everywhere. It is present in popular music as well. Music genres and trends have messed up. We are astonished that after fifty years young people look up to Pierre Schaeffer, or have even taken over the name, as today electronic music refers mainly to popular music- e.g. techno. I will try to present this aspect during our festival as well.

I have noticed that for some time MEN has been dominated by projects based on a combination of genres and different forms of artistic activities. More often we watch performances, installations. Is it the sign of the times?

The composers’ quest is indeed going this way. Will it always be so? It is difficult to say. We have invited Pierre Jodlowski, an artist with Polish roots, a young composer, who acts in different fields and wants to explore everything and in addition he is extremely talented. He performs solo on stage and is a master of electronic technique. He is a very interesting person and living proof of what is happening in the world nowadays. There will be more French artists, because as far as contemporary music is concerned, France is a country where many ensembles are devoted only to playing new music. We will have Court circuit, which performs many pieces with electronics. This is where the three subtitles of the MEN festival derive from, namely interpretation, interaction and integration. For a moment I will refer back to interpretation, which until recently has been somewhat brushed aside in contemporary music. Meanwhile, in France there are whole seminars on how music can be played in concerts. Now it is developing into a global specialization. There are some performers who are experts on filling the space with speakers or setting them up. Thus, our initiative to show speaker orchestras, acousmonium. One would ask, what for? The pianist or harpsichordist can play a Bach suite neutrally, e.g. only piano or mezzo piano, but he may also add something of his own. It is similar in electronic music.

When it comes to intriguing projects I have listed the „Innocent Barbarian’s Cycle or the opera, „Martha’s Garden” by Cezary Duchnowski, which we have not been able to hear in Wroclaw so far…

I knew that there will be a Festival of Contemporary Opera held in Wroclaw, and Ewa Michnik, the festival director, is specifically interested in brand new works, so I suggested that we stage the opera by Cezary Duchnowski as part of Musica Electronica Nova. It is a small chamber work with one soprano, reciter and a few instruments with an electronic ensemble. Besides “Martha’s Garden” we have included a performance by Dieter Kaufmann ‘Klang.Raum.Frau’, which is entirely electronic as far as the sound layer is concerned, and is played with a performance of a dancer and accompanied with a video. Kaufmann, a distinguished composer, created a work where all his oeuvre is shown, in particular electroacoustic sound. “Innocent Barbarian’s Cycle” brings an interesting story to my mind. The festival programme committe  is composed of Monika Pasiecznik, Jan Topolski, Sławomir Kupczak and others.

In one word Young Musica Electronica …

That is correct. They follow new trends – intuitive music, improvised live on laptops, to which I rather maintain a distance. These proposals were converted to the so-called barbarian trend, the name is derived from ”Barbarian In The Garden” by Herbert. Hence, it is a totally different approach to music compared to that of classic electronic musicians, who have gathered their knowledge over years and carefully refine each detail. Young musicians are spontaneous and seek beauty in special sound specifics, rustles, which are not always considered nice by everyone. This trend seems to be very popular among young people.

As far as I can tell, the festival audience is mainly composed of young people.

I hope so.

The problem is that somewhere along the way we have lost the middle-aged generation. They are afraid of contemporary music, which can be observed even when they listen to Lutosławski’s works. What can be done to attract, apart from younger ones, also older people who could come, listen and become fans?

We need to make it clear that the devil is not as black as he is painted, because we are always afraid of something we do not know. The first contact with contemporary music could have been too painful for some people. Today, with such a long history, this music should have been assimilated years ago. Not to even mention that both the old and the young do not even realise that they constantly listen to this music, just think of our mobile phones.

Maybe this is the reason why mature listeners are not willing to come. They expect the music to be extraordinary and here you have everyday life.

But it will be extraordinary, because we will be able to hear sounds other than those in our mobiles. Let us not forget that even Varèse used sirens in his works and dreamt of an instrument with which he would be able to achieve never-ending glissando. Such an instrument was created, but soon after he died. Electroacoustic music is still new, though it has been present for half of the century. The listeners have not yet done their homework regarding the early music. We do not want to reject history, but I always repeat, who on earth would prefer to go by carriage, when you can choose a car or a plane. Meanwhile, when it comes to music we are still driving carriages and we would want everything to be nice and pretty, and not absorbing too much. Our purpose is to get listeners familiar with the new music. In the 1960s the scared ones went into the shadow. But during the Warsaw Autumn Festival I can see crowds of people, and there is a lot of electronic music as well. MEN is filled with instrumental music combined with electronics and in practice there is no concert where the sounds are only played back.

You talk about the new music with an unusual passion, but at the beginning of your composing career you studied with Tadeusz Baird, one of the most distinguished composers of the past century, who was however, rather far from modern music.

We cannot be sure how he would compose today, as he was a very open, eloquent, and erudite person. I studied only for a year in his class. Then he was expelled from the school. Then I continued with Zbyszek Rudziński, who was only a few years older than me and tried to embrace all my extensive interests. I was his first student, so when Baird came back I did not really want to say “goodbye” to Rudziński. However, I tried to stay in touch with Baird. Unfortunately, he passed away so soon.

And how did you find yourself in France?

First, in the 1960s I went there hitchhiking. Then I came back to Poland, studied composition and gave birth to my child and I was not planning to leave Poland. I felt really good, I had many orders, and my first chamber opera was performed on stage. Then, I went to Paris on a scholarship of the French government and Ministry of Culture, like many of my colleagues before and after me. The difference was that I went there in October 1981 and in December martial law was declared in Poland. I always repeat that the wind of history blew me to Paris and so I stayed there a bit longer than expected. I am as if suspended as an emigrant and so it will be to the end of my life.

In Paris you worked with the legendary Pierre Schaeffer. How did that happen?

I had just graduated from sound directory and got into the right place at the right time. Naturally, I already knew about GRM; in Warsaw we had our own experimental studio, so the equipment in the French studio was not a surprise to me. Pierre Schaeffer was fascinating; he had a vision of something new. Back then he was already combining arts with movement and sound. He created a melting pot, where everything was boiling. Unfortunately, at some stage his wings were clipped. In the 1970s, when he wanted to go forward, he was withdrawn. Near the end of his life, embittered, he himself said it all had no sense. He was wrong, because his idea is continued. Maybe in a bit different way, but still, we come back to his vision of music analysis, perception when it comes to communication with the listeners. This two year period in Paris changed my life completely.

The French theme will be present in your brand new opera on Maria Skłodowska-Curie. What kind of work is it?

The opera was composed for four main soloists. In total, eleven singers will perform plus a choir, ballet and large orchestra. There will also be some electronic elements. I carry a huge burden on my shoulder; it is a serious responsibility for me. The première is planned for November in Paris and Opera Bałtycka in Gdańsk.

How will you show the figure of the Polish scientist? Recently, she has been discovered as a real woman, who, after her husband’s death, was not afraid to have an affair with a married man, her lover, Paul Langevin. Was this episode included in the libretto?

When six years ago I came up with an idea of a project of the opera, I visited the granddaughter of Maria Słodowska-Curie, Professor Hélène Langevin-Joliot. I entered the museum, a former laboratory of Maria Curie, and the first thing I heard from her was the statement: “I am sure you will write about this affair”. I stopped, looked at her and confirmed: “Of course!” and then I added: “Didn’t she have a right? She was a woman.” She wondered for a moment and then said: “Actually, you are right. You may write about it”. I got her permission. When taking part in different events in Paris I realized that in some scientific circles this story is still swept under the carpet. Quite unnecessarily, as it has a really happy ending. The granddaughter of Maria Skłodowska-Curie and grandson of Paul Langevin got married. Thus, I cannot see any reason why I should not write about it.

Is there a chance to see the opera during the next edition of Musica Electronica Nova?

I would be really happy if it was staged on the Polish Contemporary Opera Festival. Now, however, I am waiting for the première in Paris and Opera Bałtycka.

Interview by Magdalena Talik

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